A Simple Plan is a 1998 thriller film starring Bill Paxton as Hank Mitchell, Billy Bob Thornton as Jacob, Brent Briscoe as Lou, and Bridget Fonda as Sarah. The plot of this low-key thriller turns on a bag of money found in a crashed airplane. It was based on the best-selling novel of the same name by Scott Smith (who also wrote the screenplay). Several prominent critics praised the film for its complexity and taut suspense (4 stars from Roger Ebert and Critic's Choice from The New York Times).
The film was filmed in Delano, Minnesota, and Ashland, Wisconsin. Billy Bob Thornton was nominated for the Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor. Scott B. Smith was nominated for the Academy Award for Writing Adapted Screenplay.
Hank Mitchell (Bill Paxton) and his pregnant wife, Sarah, live a quiet but happy life in rural Minnesota. Hank, one of the town's few residents to graduate college, runs a feed mill, while his wife is a librarian. Hank's brother, Jacob (Billy Bob Thornton), is a dim-witted but good-hearted fellow. The story begins with Hank, Jacob, and a third friend, Lou, chasing a dog into the woods. In the woods, they find not only the dog, but a downed airplane that crashed in the area some time ago. After some investigation, they see the pilot is long-since dead, and the only cargo seems to be a bag full of unmarked bills totaling $4 million.
Hank suggests turning the money in, but is persuaded not to do so by Jacob and Lou. Hank's condition for agreeing to a deal is that he keep the money safe at his house and no one spends anything until winter ends and everyone moves away when they divvy up the cash. All agree, and also agree to keep the discovery a secret. Immediately when they return to their vehicle, the sheriff appears and Hank nervously talks to him while Jacob unwisely mentions sounds of "a plane" in the area. Hank breaks the secrecy promise and reveals the discovery to his wife, who is overjoyed at the news.
Things start to unravel quickly. When Hank and Jacob return to the plane to put some of the money back (part of a larger plan to avoid suspicion), they come across an old man on a snowmobile. Jacob, wrongly thinking their cover is blown, bludgeons the man. When the man regains consciousness and asks for the police, Hank suffocates him and makes it look like an accidental snowmobile death. Jacob reneges on his promise to move away during the summer, and tells of his intention to buy his father's farm with his share of the money. Lou, meanwhile, drunkenly demands some of the money from Hank, saying that he has spent recklessly since the discovery and needs cash fast. Hank refuses, and Lou threatens telling the authorities about the old man's death. Hank and Jacob team up against Lou to make sure he will not squeal about the old man's murder. Lou, drunk and enraged that the two would conspire against him, pulls a gun. Jacob reluctantly kills Lou to save his brother, and then Hank kills Lou's wife when she appears shooting another gun. Hank concocts a plan as to what to tell the cops, so they avoid arrest. The plan works thanks to Jacob's rehearsed speech to the authorities. Jacob tells Hank that this whole turn of events is wearing on him and that he "feels evil."
Later, the sheriff calls Hank and tells him that the FBI has arrived in town, looking for a downed plane that may have crashed in the area. Because Jacob has mentioned a "plane" earlier, the sheriff asks the two brothers to assist in the search through the woods. Sarah is immediately skeptical and fears that the FBI man in town is actually involved with the disappeared money and is looking for his lost cash. Hank isn't sure of her theory but brings a loaded gun with him just in case. Then the four (the sheriff, the FBI man, Hank and Jacob) all head into the woods. They find the plane, and Hank's worst fears are confirmed when the FBI man pulls a gun and kills the sheriff, revealing that he is indeed looking for his lost money, and not with the FBI. Jacob and Hank manage to get the drop on the man, and Hank shoots him dead. Hank starts to concoct another story to tell the authorities, but Jacob announces he doesn't want to live with these bad memories, and will shoot himself to end it. He encourages Hank to kill him instead and frame the FBI man, so that Hank can still tell any story he wants. After grappling with the decision, Hank kills Jacob, breaking down sobbing.
At the police station, Hank tells his "story" to real FBI men, and is cleared of any wrongdoing. But he gets some unexpected bad news. The money in the plane is actually ransom money paid to kidnappers, and before it was delivered, many of the bills' serial numbers were written down to track the cash and find whoever was using it. Hank realizes everything was for nothing, as he can't cash even one hundred dollar bill without fear of being caught. He goes home and burns all the money, with his wife struggling to stop him. Later, we see Hank and Sarah living the same unfulfilled lives they started out with.
Hank and Jacob's relationship is somewhat different. Though still not close, they have more affection for one another in the film than in the novel. While the Jacob of the novel is morbidly obese, the one in the film is small and skinny. Though in both the novel and the film, Jacob is a pathetic loser, in the film he is much kinder and considerate, while in the novel he is much more selfish and even scheming.
Lou in the film is married, while in the novel he lives with his girlfriend. Though spiteful and antagonistic towards Hank in both the novel and the film, in the novel Lou is notably more malicious, taking joy in ridiculing and bullying Hank.
While in the film Sarah still encourages several devious plans, in the novel she suggests that Hank murder Lou's neighbor, making her appear much more ruthless.
The film also changes Hank's reaction to finding out Baxter isn't an FBI agent. Rather than bolting, as he does in the novel, Hank stays with the plan realizing that if he leaves Baxter will kill Carl. Jacob also accompanies the crew. The result is a bloodbath, with only Hank surviving. Jacob is killed by Hank after Jacob threatens to commit suicide because he feels he can no longer live with what he's seen; Hank didn't want him to kill himself because which guns shot whom needed to align for his alibi.
Hank's killing spree at the convenience store is also excluded from the film.
Overall, the changes make the finished story less violent and Hank's character more compassionate. Hank in the film is far less murderous and even more remorseful for what he does than the Hank of the novel, who willingly executes innocent bystanders without hesitation. Hank is also depicted protecting Carl in the film, whereas in the novel he leaves Carl for dead. Much of the dialog and themes, however, are carefully maintained in both media.